In this episode, I talk to Bekah Weigel, who runs the virtual coffee community about community building.
Bekah graduated from a Bootcamp in 2019 and quickly created a striving and very special developer community in just under two years.
We talk about:
- how she kick-started the developer community virtual coffee
- what it takes to run the community
- how sponsorships make it possible to be sustainable, and
- how community members take over a large part of running the community.
Transcript: Kickstarting and running a developer community
[00:00:00] Michaela: Hello, and welcome to the software engineering unlocked podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Michaela. And today I have the pleasure to talk to Bekah Hawrot Weigel, a web developer and creator of the virtual coffee developer community.
But before I start, let me tell you about an amazing startup that is sponsoring today’s episode: Codiga.
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But now back to Bekah. Bekah graduated from the bootcamp Flatiron school in May, 2019. And since then she started a consultancy specializing in front end development and created the developer community virtual coffee. She also recently started her new job as a technical community builder at deep gram.
She’s also a mom of four, so I’m totally impressed. And yesterday I went to pick her brain on how she could develop this awesome. Develop a community so fast in just a little bit under two years.
So that come to my show background, I’m really, really excited that
[00:01:41] Bekah: you are here. Thanks so much for having me. I’m very excited to be here. Yeah.
[00:01:45] Michaela: So can you tell me a little bit about virtual coffee, what it is? And for me it seems a little bit different than other communities. It seems a little bit, a little bit more niche, grit, like closer.
W how would you describe
[00:01:57] Bekah: it? Yeah, I think that’s a great way to [00:02:00] describe it. We always like to say that we like the intimacy of virtual coffee because we’re a small community of developers where all stages of the journey. So if you’re just learning, if you’ve been doing it your whole career we’ve got everybody and we’re tech agnostic, so it doesn’t matter what, what tech tools you’re using.
If you want to meet up with other developers and share and support each other. We’re here for it. So we meet up twice a week when we meet up on Tuesdays at 9:00 AM, Eastern and Wednesdays at 12:00 PM Eastern for some chats. So we go into breakout rooms. So we have small group conversation. We like to maintain that intimacy.
And then for members, so people who have attended at least one virtual coffee, they’re welcome into our slack and our members only. So we have lunch and learns on most Fridays, we’re running our third round of lightening talks soon. We’ve got monthly challenges and some other small groups that meet that are building within the slack community, which is just so great to see everybody supporting each other and working to meet the needs of the community.
[00:03:04] Michaela: Yeah. So there’s a bunch of things that you just mentioned. Right? So a virtual coffee. When I came to know it, it was mainly there’s. The weekly, or I don’t know if it was even PVT at the start, but it was like this virtual coffees where you. We’re seeing each other and chatting to each other and now it grew into something really big.
Right. And so you say you it’s, it’s a small community, but, but how large is it? Like how many people are participating here and, you know, , what else do you do to keep this , intimacy, Ronaldo and Messi. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. How do you, how.
[00:03:43] Bekah: , Well, you know, we’ve got our slack has almost 600 people in it, but I would like to just note that I think that, you know, there’s a lot of people who used to be active that aren’t active anymore.
And one of the things about the community is we’re really close, but it is transient in nature [00:04:00] because sometimes people are looking for their first job and they get it and they can’t come around much anymore. Sometimes people change jobs and their availability changes.
So, you know, one of the things that we really like is being able to celebrate wins with other people.
It’s bittersweet a lot of times because you know that they won’t be around much anymore, but you know, like occasionally I’ll get messages from people who came at the very beginning and it’s just so great to, you know, still have that connection and know that, you know, we support each other, whether we’re in slack or not.
So I would say maybe we have about 200, 200 or 300 active members, which I think is still pretty good. 30 to 50% of our slack is fairly active. And I think, you know, We maintain that intimacy by doing, by focusing on small group conversation and a lot of ways. So the small group conversation that happens when we meet up on zoom twice a week we try and keep our breakout rooms between eight and 14 people, but we have.
Start in the big zoom room together. And we go over some announcements, like our code of conduct and what the mission of virtual coffee is a little bit of our history just to allow people to get a glimpse of this is how long we’ve been doing things. And this is how, how things have grown. And so. By having that interaction with other people by seeing faces or hearing voices or interacting and a synchronous way, it provides some kind of connection and friendship that doesn’t happen as easily in async only environments.
And then it’s great to see what the community members are doing. We have let’s see here, we’ve got all of these small groups meeting within the community and. Tech interview study group. These are all led by members that happened on Monday. We have an indie hackers meetup on Wednesday, a react meetup on Wednesday and [00:06:00] a monthly challenge check-in on Friday.
So, you know, the members are really there to support each other and to see what the needs are. And so not, everybody’s going to come to indie hackers. I like to go to that one. It’s one of my favorites. You know, maybe there’s like. To eight people there, but it’s great because you can really dive into those deeper conversations and get to know people in the, those small moments in ways that you can’t when you’re in a large group of people.
So I think that’s one of the things that, that we’ve done well is have people who care about each other and, and see them supporting each other in their new.
[00:06:39] Michaela: Yeah, that sounds really good. And there are a couple of things that I want to touch base on that you mentioned, first of all. So I can imagine that there are like a hundred people joining your soup, and then you have this announcement.
Remember you’re members of what is all about, which I think is really good for the mission also, and for new members to, you know, Just introduce them to your culture code of conduct and them so on, but then how do you announce the different breakout rooms? Do you know, do people speak up and say, oh, I want to do a breakout room.
Is it like, I don’t know if this is an a term in English by the bar camp where you, and non-conference where it just self-organize itself or do you have to announce it beforehand? Did you know already, these are the topics of, you know, today’s
[00:07:24] Bekah: Yeah. So that’s a really great question. So we also, I should have mentioned this before, because I think one of the ways that we also have been able to support everybody is we have documented most of our processes thoroughly.
And that allows us to bring new volunteers on and to support new people. We think of pretty much every interaction as a opportunity for onboarding new members and to constantly remind people of the things that matter to us, which is, you know, being kind and recognizing that the impact of our words matters.
And so we have all of that created and we [00:08:00] have let’s see maybe about 30 room leaders in note takers. And so we have a process on Mondays where we see who’s up for volunteering to be a room leader or note taker. And we pick a introduction question, just a random question. It can be something silly.
Like what kind of dinosaur would you be? And so everybody in the breakout rooms answers a couple of questions, including that. And we have a Backpocket topic, but we always say that we like to prioritize what folks who are in the room want to talk about. So if they have a question or if they have a topic they want to talk about, we start with that.
And then if not, we’ve got that back pocket topic. We had virtual coffee today and our back pocket topic. I’ll read it to you. Just so you have a sample of some of the things, actually, all of them I think are listed on our discussions in our repository. Our topic today was what are some transferable skills you bring to tech either from a previous career or from other parts of your life.
And so actually my breakout room did talk about that. And so everyone there’s okay. So we have the. MC he’ll gives all of the announcements. And then we have a host who controls zoom and the host puts everybody into breakout rooms. So we already know who our room leaders and note takers are. Those have already been set up the day before.
And so we make sure that they all get in room and we try and have backup ones. So, you know, if we need a fifth room, then we’re going to have this person as a backup room leader. Which today I think we did end up using our backup And then the host goes through and fills all of those rooms and we do our best.
It gets chaotic when people come in late or at the end or drop off and come back in. But we do our best to make sure that we get a pretty well-rounded room. So new folks, people who have been there for a while, you know that some people maybe are leading for the first time. And so you want to put some.
[00:10:00] Dependable talkers and their room. And so you try and make sure that you do that, but that’s kind of the process for what we do and how we do it. Wow,
[00:10:07] Michaela: that sounds like you’re having a conference and the organizational, like I say, not a burden, but burden ID. It doesn’t seem like it’s a burden to you to organizational fun.
Every week, twice sounds like a lot of work.
[00:10:22] Bekah: Now that we have the process down, it makes it a lot easier. And we’ve got some, you know, Slackbots reminding us about some of the things that we have to do and where to look for things. And it, it is a lot of fun. There is definitely work behind the scenes that happens to make sure that we have a, a safe and welcoming environment for everyone.
But, you know, it’s worth it. If people feel like this is a safe space that they can grow. Yeah, definitely.
[00:10:46] Michaela: And I can really see like with this organization, I mean probably if, if, you know, like if you started there like five people come in, you know, showing up, you don’t need a lot of organization. Right.
But then if 10 people, and then it’s 20, then you know, you started developing those processes and you probably see also what works and what does not work. And what are some of the things that you tried that didn’t work out. So.
[00:11:08] Bekah: Well, I will say that when I first started virtual coffee, I didn’t even know that zoom had breakout rooms.
So that was a totally new concept to me. And I feel like I’ve got some expertise in it. Initially. I so virtual coffee started. I had been working as a developer for about eight months when the pandemic hit. And then I lost my job because of the pandemic. My kids were sent home from school. That same day.
They never went back to school that year. I think. And so I was really interviewing for the first time for jobs and I just didn’t have a great sense of the developer community out there, what the expectations were, how to make it through the interview process. And so I asked, you know, Hey, does anybody want to meet up for virtual coffee on Twitter?
And, and that’s why we’re so called virtual coffee. And so I’ve learned so much. And [00:12:00] initially I was kind of resistant to having a slack because, oh, I don’t know if we need it. You know, this is just going to be something we do for a couple of months. So I, I would say that maybe some of the things that didn’t work were, you know, pushing some of those things off for a while or being resistant to.
Adding we, we lean on project boards and get hub issues a lot in our organization. We want to make sure that we use tools where our members lived. And so I initially I was resistant. I was like, I can not look at one more repository no more. And now I’m like, yes. Yeah, we need a repository for that.
So. I think that my, my, the thing that didn’t work was my frame of mind around it, because for a long time, I thought this was going to be a temporary thing. And when we did our first heck Tober Fest event two years ago, that’s when I finally thought, oh, this is, we’re not going anywhere. We’re w this is not just a pandemic thing.
Like we’re filling a need for a lot of people, even outside of the pandemic. And so that’s kind of where. Things started shifting in my mind, like, what is the, what are the long-term processes and how can we make this sustainable?
[00:13:12] Michaela: Yeah. And it’s really nice. Yeah. I’m also like, I, I’m often thinking of creating a community around se unlocked, for example, the podcast.
Right. But I’m not sure about how it will, you know, what are the right tools? What is the right kind of community. I’m also more a person of like, I’m not really good at. Participant in the slack channels and this core channel, I get very easily overwhelmed. And then, you know, like maybe a week I’m trying really hard, but
If it already starts with that, you know, I don’t, you know, I don’t think that I can run a community like this, but having, you know, chats or, you know, soon conversations. I was also thinking about Twitter spaces. Is that something that came to your mind that you could maybe do as well?
[00:13:57] Bekah: Yeah. So I [00:14:00] went through, I ran a lot of Twitter spaces myself.
I went through a string of them. I was doing them weekly, and then I started live streaming, I think instead just trying to get a feel for everything that’s out there. But I think with my job at deep gram, we’re going to start doing some Twitter spaces that I’m really excited about because of the support of the team.
And we can do some really great stuff. Start build community and fill some of the needs that we see out there in the tech community right now.
[00:14:31] Michaela: Yeah. Yeah. And do you think that there’s a difference between a zoom? It assumed seems a little bit more intimate for me because you know, it’s, it’s a community that’s not completely public it’s public, right.
Because people can just respond and be part of it, but to the spaces for me, just because it’s there on Twitter and then you see at least some of the bubbles and then it’s broadcasted through other, you know, sort of followers of the people that are in there. And so on. People can drop in and go out.
Do you think it’s different and, and has a different need or fills a different need, a different purpose for the condition?
[00:15:07] Bekah: I think, you know, there are expectations when you meet with other people in a small group setting, face-to-face, you know, you, and we say like, if you want to leave your camera off, if you want to stay muted, that’s totally fine.
If you want to throw things in the chat, that’s a great way to communicate as well. But still you see other people there, whereas Twitter spaces, you can kind of come in and out. You, there’s not the sense of, oh, I have a roll hill here that I have. Bill because you’re not a speaker. You can be a listener.
And so in. Twitter spaces I think is closer to watching a live stream because you can interact through the chat, but it’s a little bit more personal because if someone’s live streaming at Twitch on Twitch, you don’t see everybody who is there, but in Twitter spaces, you can see those other people and they do connect you.
Other like, you know, if we follow [00:16:00] each other, I can see whose space you’re in. I’m like, oh, okay, well, she’s there and she’s cool. So I’m going to go check out, you know, what she’s listening to. And so there’s a, I think a little bit, maybe more community happening in Twitter spaces, but there’s less like barrier to entry or friction if you’re shy or an introvert or, you know, just kind of want to check something out one time.
[00:16:24] Michaela: another thing that I wanted to talk with you, and I think they are a little bit connected. One is that, so I looked on your website, virtual coffee.io, and there are a couple of people publicly listed. Right. And apparently they are not all of them. Not everybody wants to be listed there or it doesn’t, it doesn’t.
Hasn’t edited themselves. But a couple of people are really listed there. And then I also saw that there are different roles, right? You were also talking about the different roles for the meetings, but there were two particular ones that were like labeled there. And one was the, the. Maintainer and the other was the community maintainer.
So what are those two roles? Is that all the roles that you have and how do you select people or how are people selecting themselves to be in those
[00:17:07] Bekah: roles? Yeah, that’s a really great question and it’s kind of evolved over time. We’ve had so many people step up and offer support and offer help. And Sarah, McCombs, they were really great support at the beginning of.
Virtual coffee and, and making sure that we got this stuff done and helping build out these processes. And when we launched our first hack Tober Fest, we had a whole team that was focused on that. And a number of the people who were on that team ended up coming on as maintainers and. I’m both a, a core maintainer and a community maintainer and, or a, an org maintainer rather.
And what that means is we kind of look at the overall organization, the health, the strategy where should we go from here? What decisions need to be made in terms of the entire organization? I would say the community maintainers are [00:18:00] looking more at the day-to-day, the community management project planning that, that kind of more day-to-day focus, I guess, in, in making sure that the team is supported there.
So we all work together as a core team and we make decisions together and there’s always going to be overlap in all of those things. But it’s funny that you ask about these roles because I was just working on this. Actually we have some team leads and they should be going up on the site there.
They’re already listed there, but. You know, we have leads for our monthly challenges as Areli, Varo, and Andrew Bush for our audio visual stuff. So getting things put up on YouTube, helping with live streams, that’s bogged in. For documentation, we just onboarded a new team lead named . Who’s absolutely great.
I met with her this morning to kind of like walk through the process of, you know, how do we prioritize, what needs documented, where do we put these things? And she’s so great about, you know, asking questions and getting issues up on the site before I even think about them. So I hope I didn’t miss anybody.
I know that, that we work with. A number of other people as well to support the organization. But I think that, that those will go up on the site soon. We want to also have like a community health team lead and we’re talking to someone about doing that. Job search is a big thing at virtual coffee.
It doesn’t matter what stage you are. Somebody is always looking for a job. And so we have some great folks who do a lot of work on that. And so, you know, that might be up on there soon too. So, you know, we’re, we’re, I think we’re in the phase where we’re trying to figure out how do we best support our members and help provide those leadership opportunities that we want.
[00:19:56] Michaela: Yeah. Yeah. So when you describe all [00:20:00] of that, it seems to me this is a full-time full-time job already, but so how much, how much time does really go into that? I mean, there’s the meetings themselves, right? That you’re a participating and I’m even, I’m not part of virtual coffee because I don’t have the time to do it as.
Just as a participant. So I can imagine you have to be at the meetings, you have to plan the meetings and there’s the chat and you’re making all this. You have all these thoughts and meetings also with other members of the community, how to grow the community, how to, you know, keep it alive and make it healthy.
So how much time off your week goes into data? I can imagine
[00:20:39] Bekah: a lot. I don’t know. That’s a good question. At some point, I think. Stopped keeping track of how much time was going into it because it was a lot and it’s not a job, right. It’s a volunteer position. But I think, you know, now we have so many supportive members and with the core team that I’m able to do, where like we’re all able to do a lot more and to lean on each other.
And to grow in that way. And a lot of the stuff is almost like muscle memory. Now, you know, I’ve been doing it for so long that it doesn’t feel like it’s one more thing to do. There are always things that, you know, I have a whole board of things I would love to do for virtual coffee and I have to try and pace myself because sometimes I go for it anyway, and then I.
Well into something and I’m like, oh, I, I might, I might die after that. So I try to avoid that feeling now.
[00:21:38] Michaela: Yeah, I can imagine. So I have seen on the GitHub page, there are some, there’s some sponsoring going on, right? Is there, are there other ways that you’re monetizing this community or that the community monetize it itself, that it has some budget around that you can also do cool stuff.
[00:21:55] Bekah: So right now, sponsorships, we launched [00:22:00] sponsorships maybe in September. And so up to that point, we were just paying out of pocket for everything. But sponsorships is the primary way that we cover our costs. We had a monthly challenge sponsorship, which was nice. We have the podcast there’s opportunities for sponsorship there.
Oh, oh, we just launched a store, so, oh yeah. Cool. That’s really exciting. It’s just really exciting to see people like wearing the virtual coffee and sharing their stickers. So those are some ways that we’re, we’re working on covering, covering the cost of what we want to do, and then, you know, hopefully providing new services and.
[00:22:38] Michaela: I think at one point you have to think about it because even like this lag is probably not free, right. You have to pay per month membered and.
[00:22:46] Bekah: Nope. So we’re on the free version of slack because it costs, I think $6 per member per month. Yeah. I saw there’s no way that we could cover that.
[00:22:59] Michaela: crazy. Yeah. Yeah. Okay. So there’s a free version of that as well, because I looked into that, I thought like maybe, you know, slack channel and it’s not like $6. Why am I God, not.
[00:23:11] Bekah: Right, right. Discord, discord, we’ve gone back and forth about it. It has a lot of great tools. We’re just not in love with the user experience of discord.
But you know, we have class. So one of the things that we have Put a lot of money into zoom because we have accounts for our core team, but also we have a coworking room that stays open all the time. So folks can join in slack and the coworking room is always open. So that’s its own account. We, you know, producing a podcast can be costly you know, producing.
Transcripts and providing the services for that. We’ve got like Zapier and air table. So, you know, like we’re, we’re using all of these tools that we can to you know, make things a little bit easier for us, but do cost money. And so what we, we try and keep our costs minimal, [00:24:00] but you know, there, there are some, but I think that.
Covered right now for our CA our monthly costs by our sponsorships, which is really, really great. Yeah. That’s
[00:24:10] Michaela: really good. Yeah, that’s really cool. So what would you say to the listeners today that would like to, you know, start their own community, have a community? What would be the MVP, a MVP version of a community that you, you know, from your experience would.
Suggest to them, should they start with fitness spaces or should they have like a meeting or a slack or a discord channel, you know, what are the options and what are the pros and cons for each
[00:24:38] Bekah: one of those? That’s really a great question. I think that, first of all, I feel strongly that. You, there are a lot of really great communities already out there, and a lot of them really need support.
So if you are not all on board and starting your own community, explore some of those and see how you can help because, you know, you might be able to be on a core team or something that allows you the experience that you want from that. So I’m not convinced that every, every person needs to start their own community.
But I would say that I think trying to fill a need within the community is a really great way to start one, because if you see that there’s a gap or that people are asking for things, or, you know, like one of the things we’ve been doing virtual coffee for almost two years now, and we get the same questions in our Our zoom sessions.
All the time. And so I can tell that there’s a real need for more work, to be done around interviewing about supporting junior developers about creating positive workspaces. So for sure there are. For groups that focus on those things. And then I would say for me, if you start a slack or a discord, that’s probably the most time-consuming [00:26:00] thing that you can do because you want to keep people engaged.
You want to keep them talking, you need to answer questions. So if you don’t have a core group of people, Then it’s going to be really, it’s going to be a lot of work to try and keep up with that. I also think that we’re in the pandemic now and people have been collecting slacks and discords, and when things in the pandemic start to ease up, we’ll see that a lot of those communities, I think, start to fade off just because, you know, people are going to prioritize the couple that they’ll keep and stay active with.
And, and then they’re going to be, you know, doing. In really stuff.
[00:26:42] Michaela: Yeah. Yeah. Which is good. I’m I’m waiting for that.
[00:26:47] Bekah: Yeah. Yeah. So I mean, thinking about like, okay, maybe you want to then create some kind of hybrid model or, you know, do an online meetup that translates into an in-person thing. Or if you, if in-person is not your thing, then, you know, figure out how you can build your online environment around that.
I think it’s tricky because it’s not one size fits all, but you know, in-person or async, if you’re a really async person, then, then slack or discord is a great way to go. So yeah, there’s, there’s a lot, there’s a lot there. Yeah.
[00:27:21] Michaela: I think it probably really about personality as well. I think a lot of people really enjoy.
Writing and, you know, participating in this estrone coroners conversation, even though they are often very synchronous right in discord. That’s why I always feel like I missed that conversation. Oh, I missed that conversation as well. And then I just leave without writing anything like anyway, so the last question that I have for you is you just started as a technical community, like.
What, what are you doing dead? Are you doing actually the same thing that you just learned yourself? And you’re not like your master now and the expert here for, for deep gram or what’s your role there?
[00:27:58] Bekah: Yeah, it’s kind of, I [00:28:00] feel like it’s such, it’s been such a good fit for me. My background, I spent 10 years teaching college English.
And so deep gram is a speech to text. AI company. And so there, there are so many different experts in different fields there. So, you know, whether it’s data science or linguistics or engineering and, you know, the devil team I get to talk to everybody and. Understand where they’re coming from, but I sit on the dev REL team as a technical community builder, so I can do dev rally things.
I can write if I want to I can contribute code, but my focus is on creating those systems and processes for community and the external community at deep gram. I always say that your community starts with the internal community. You want to make sure that you have a strong internal community before trying to start an external community, because you have to have that support network to help you and that trust to be in guidance.
So I’m doing. You know, some educating I am doing well, hopefully some speaking in the near future and hopefully some writing and building out that community strategy and trying to figure out, you know, where, how can we. Fill a need in the tech community or how can we support existing communities out there?
So it is, it’s pretty much a mixture of everything I’ve ever done in my life to this point. And it’s been really fun in the first three weeks now having a team to work with them. Yeah,
[00:29:31] Michaela: it sounds super exciting. Yeah. I can’t imagine everything coming together for you. And you can really strive now with the competencies that you, I think not only developed you probably had already from the beginning, right?
Because it’s not something that you. You make the first virtual coffee? I think a lot of people did that and then it grows into something that’s, you know, so probably not in the deaf community as well, so well rounded. So yeah, so [00:30:00] congratulations to that. And thank you so much for sharing so much about the process and about virtual copy, how it worked.
Yeah, I really enjoyed it. Is there something that you want to tell our listeners? Maybe how can they sign up for virtual coffee? He said, you know, do you, do you have to have some commitment there or accountability?
[00:30:21] Bekah: That’s a great question. So we make everybody come to at least one virtual coffee for before getting an invitation and to our slack and that’s to, you know, help them experience, you know, our community and to see what it’s like, because, you know, we feel that we demonstrate that pretty well in those meetings.
And so it’s really. Figuring out if it’s in the community for you, because it’s not the community for everyone, we all have different needs and, and things that we like. And don’t like, and so if it’s for you, then it’s great. Then join our slack, fill out our new member form. You can find those firstname.lastname@example.org slash events.
So come and check out a virtual coffee and then.
[00:31:05] Michaela: Yeah, cool. I will link everything in the show notes. And thank you so much for talking to me being here today with me. I enjoyed it.
[00:31:14] Bekah: Great. Thanks so much. I’m going to, can I mention one more thing? Yeah, sure. I just want to say to ’em if you follow deep gram devs on Twitter, I think we’ll be running some very cool Twitter spaces through there soon.
So if you want to check out some Twitter spaces, you can do that as well. And thank you so much for having me. This has been great. Yeah, I really
[00:31:35] Michaela: loved it. Okay. Thank you for caring. Thank you. Bye
[00:31:38] Bekah: bye.